Scientists have been talking about how to save species from extinction and about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for a long time. Now, they are combining the two and talking about genetically modifying wild animals to help them survive changing environments.
“Even the most conservative estimates predict that 15–40% of living species will be effectively extinct by 2050 as a result of climate change, habitat loss and other consequences of human activities,” according to a comment article in the journal Nature.
While a number of tactics commonly used to save species — from relocating populations to more suitable areas to bringing back keystone species, including top predators who have a positive cascading effect on the ecosystem – have been successful, scientists now want to add a new option called facilitated adaptation to the mix, which would involve genetic engineering.
They believe genetically modifying animals might be easier than relocating populations, which also comes with the risk of introducing invasive species and diseases to new areas. They propose three alternative methods for doing this:
- Animals from threatened populations could be hybridized with individuals from the same species who are better adapted to particular environments.
- Specific genes could be identified, isolated and introduced into the genomes of threatened species.
- Genes could be taken from a well-adapted species and introduced into an entirely different species – which would likely cause a lot of controversy.
The authors note that playing with genetics has already been widely done in plant species and with some wild animals. For example, the introduction of new cats from a related subspecies helped the Florida panther to rebound. The authors believe using this in certain conditions could help with things like stopping diseases and use the example of creating a resistance to white nose syndrome in bats.
However, they note there could be dangers in doing this as well, such as disrupting the adaptations that animals have already developed to help them survive. Introducing diseases is also still a concern. Additionally, no one will be able to predict the outcome, and tinkering with genes “could bring unintended and unmanageable consequences.”
Another concern is that if scientists resort to using this type of tool to help preserve biodiversity, it will only result in increased apathy on our part when it comes to conservation and dealing with climate change and habitat destruction, which are at the heart of the problem for wildlife.
If turning wild animals into GMOs offends your sensibilities, you probably don’t need to worry about it happening on a grand scale any time soon. The authors believe facilitated adaptation “could turn out to be the only viable remedy,” but admit there needs to be far more debate, collaboration and acceptance within the scientific community before the idea gets off the ground.
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